What Budgeting and Decluttering Can Teach You About Yourself

There are two ways to build a mountain: top down or bottom up.

People often get into budgeting and decluttering at the same time. There are lots of practical reasons for this. If your pathway into budgeting is financial problems, you may discover decluttering as a way to improve the look and feel of your home without spending money, or to recover value from unused items by selling them on eBay or holding a yard sale. If your pathway into decluttering is feeling overwhelmed, or worrying that you buy too many things, you may get into budgeting as a way to get control over your finances and impose additional restrictions on how much stuff you can bring into your life.

I know that I got into both around the same time. I got into budgeting first. I suddenly found myself an adult with a mortgage and serious long-term relationship and emerging financial goals--I mean, goals more defined than "be able to pay my bills and not die." I'm lucky that all the years I was bopping along like Baby's Day Out I didn't crash into any serious problems. But I craved more security, and a plan for the future. I don't recall going directly from budgeting to decluttering, but they resulted from the same stage of life. As I moved in with my now-wife and settled into my new house, it seemed like a good time shed those unnecessary knick-knacks and cheap plastic "fine for now" items that I'd accumulated in my college and early adulthood years.

The two processes support and feed into each other really well, and it took me awhile to figure out that they're basically the same process. What I mean is, when you get down to it, they're two concrete ways to get at the same abstract process: defining your priorities.

When you budget, you decide how you will spend and save your money. Once you get beyond the basic necessities--food, rent, heat, etc.--you begin making value judgments: is this expense worth the money, or would I rather have the cash? You may ask others what they think ("is cable TV worth it?"), but ultimately it comes down to you (and your partner/family, if you have joint finances): what do you think is necessary? What do you want?

When you declutter, you decide what physical items you will keep in your home and what you will get rid. Once you get beyond the basic necessities--bedding, basic cooking implements, basic clothing, etc.--you begin making value judgments: is this item worth keeping, or would I rather have the free space? You may ask others what they think ("do I need a stand mixer?"), but ultimately it comes down to you (and your partner/family, if you live with other people): what do you think is necessary? What do you want?

Both processes are all about recognizing that you have a limited resource (money, space) and deciding how to allocate that resource in line with your priorities and values.

Because, unless you are very, very strong-willed and self-assured about your priorities, it is so, so easy to allow yourself to be pulled along by a mishmash of tiny random decisions, subject to the vagaries of random circumstance, outside influences, and momentary whims. All of those little decisions add up to something, but it might not be what you want. You may end up feeling like you are treading water, moving first in one direction than another, and never going anywhere. Or you may feel the stressful, anxious feeling of knowing you are not living your true, authentic life, that what you want and what you actually do are two entirely separate things.

By making an intentional plan and sticking to it, you have a better chance of behaving in line with your actual values; of making actual progress on your goals; and of living a life that is true to who you are and what you want.

Two Approaches

With both budgeting and decluttering, you can take either a top-down or bottom-up approach.

Top Down

If you already know your priorities, budgeting and decluttering are basically checking to make sure your actual behavior is in line with what you say you want.

For example, if travel is super-important to you, your budget is basically "financial plan to maximize my ability to travel." You'd check your spending and make sure you have not allowed any habits to creep in that are pushing travel out of your grasp in favor of things you care about less. On the decluttering front, you'd check to make sure your possession set is optimized to allow for travel. Perhaps you'd pass along anything big and clunky and hard to pack, and avoid accumulating collections that tie you down to one spot, or that you can't enjoy when you're on the road. Whenever considering something new, you might ask yourself if this item is something you'd take along with you on a trip, and if not, is there a more travel-friendly version? Or do you really need it at all?

With your ultimate goals and values in mind, you can use your budget and stuff plans to course-correct those small day-to-day decisions.

Bottom Up

I don't know about you, but until I started these processes, I couldn't have told you what my priorities really were. Sure, I could have named numerous values and beliefs, but I couldn't have told you which was the most important. I couldn't have told you which things I was willing to sacrifice for, and which things I vaguely admired in theory. By forcing me to make many small decisions, budgeting and decluttering gave me a lens through which to reflect on my priorities. It was a simple, concrete backdoor to making those big, difficult decisions.

Without altering my spending, the first thing I did was think about what my savings was for. I saved each month, but the money just went into a savings account. What was I saving for? I'd been saving for a home, and I was saving for home repair on an ongoing basis, but what was I planning next? Many financial books and articles recommended that young adults who are able save for a wedding since the average wedding is so costly, but a big, fancy wedding wasn't something I wanted, so it went to the bottom of my priority list--so far that it completely fell off. Actually, the thing I personally wanted most was to retire early. That indicated that I shouldn't be just saving in a savings account, but investing. And I certainly shouldn't be contributing the minimum to my retirement account, as I presently was. Okay, making progress: I'd increase my retirement savings by the amount I was currently saving each money, and stop hoarding in a savings account.

Could I save even more for retirement? By playing with different budget plans, I could see directly how my choice to assign myself more or less "fun money" could result in more or less savings, and vice versa. So, what did I value more? Fun now, or earlier retirement?

Were there ways I could spend my fun money that would have more bang for the buck? What did I consider fun, anyway? Was I currently spending in ways that weren't that fun?

On and on down the list of expenses: what value is this expense providing for me? Is it worth it? Is the alternative use for the money more compelling?

Decluttering case-by-case opportunities to think about my values in even tinier, more concrete ways. Do I enjoy this particular DVD enough to keep it? Do I watch it often enough? Under what circumstances would I watch in the future? Are those circumstances likely? Does it therefore earn its space in my collection?

More generally, how much space do I want to devote to DVDs? Should I have fewer? Should I have any? Do I value the ability to watch DVDs more than I value having space? Expanding other collections (such as books or clothes)?

Even more generally, do I want a cluttered home or an airy, open one? If I want a lot of free space in my home, do I want it more than I want [this thing I am holding]?

In both cases, starting with small decisions--this physical object or budget line item, yay or nay?--you back into medium-sized and then large decisions. And the large decisions begin to form a set of values. At that point, you can switch to a top-down approach for future decisions, making them much easier.

One More Limited Resource: Time

It occurred to me while writing this that there's got to be an analogous process for managing your time. Scheduling? Bucket listing? It's clear that this is needed (and that I don't have it locked down). Just as it's easy to fritter away money on things that, when you budget, you realize were not in line with your overall plan, it's very easy to fritter away dribs and drabs of time, or even to commit large blocks of time to things that are not major priorities for you. The feeling of imbalance, of not living your true life, is even more pronounced when you are spending your time the wrong way, than when you are spending your money or space the wrong way.

The book Essentialism by Greg McKeown describes time and schedule management guidelines that are equivalent to a top-down budgeting/decluttering approach: first you decide on your values and goals, and then you say "no" to everything that doesn't get you closer to those values and goals.

What I feel is missing is a bottom-up time management process, one that allows you to back into deciding on your goals by making small decisions. I've thought about this in terms of "decluttering my schedule," reflecting on what things I did, what things I wanted to do but didn't, and how to find more time for things I claim to value. I feel like I need to develop a more concrete process for this, though.

So, what are my true values? (And how do you define yours?)

I feel like I'm at the point now where I want to switch between bottom-up and top-down decision making, which requires me to define my key personal values, order them by priority, and a create a sort of "mission statement" to resolve conflicts. I always find it easier to do this kind of exercise when I'm presented with options, so in my next post, I'll provide a list of some potential values to help you (and me) create our own personalized lists.


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